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Contemporary Lessons from British Offshore Balancing Strategy in the Napoleonic Wars

  • Published
  • By Major John Pendergrass

Strategic competition is in vogue as the United States (U.S.) and China seek global power and influence. In search of historical lessons to understand the competition between the U.S. and China, strategists often reference the U.S.'s strategic competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, the strategic competition during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) holds valuable lessons for U.S. strategists vis-a-vis China. Although it took several failed attempts, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ultimately managed to curtail France’s expansionism and dominance of Europe by using an offshore balancing strategy incorporating its diplomatic, military, and economic instruments of national power (IOPs).[1] As peace treaties with an aggressive expansionist power are likely broken, comprehensive enduring alliances are the only way to curtail them.

Offshore balancing is a realist approach to strategy by which a great power retains its security and position by using allied regional powers to balance against a potential competitor. As an island nation whose power came from its maritime commerce and navy, Britain had a critical interest in preventing the rise of a continental hegemon that could threaten it with invasion.[2] Without the military capacity to singlehandedly defeat the French, the British had to rely on alliances and peace treaties to balance against France. This behavior is typical as states balance by allying with each other to maintain the status quo against a dangerous state that demonstrates power, proximity, offensive capabilities, and offensive intentions.[3] Revolutionary France had already demonstrated all the characteristics of a dangerous state, as it upended the norms of international and domestic politics of 18th-century Europe, eventually launching offensive military actions into the Netherlands, Italy, and the Rhine.[4] Seeking to restore the French monarchy and impede French expansionism, many of the European states joined loose coalitions, often with the financial backing of Great Britain. While France had managed to eliminate all of the United Kingdom’s continental allies through diplomacy and military prowess by 1797, the United Kingdom created a second coalition in 1798 with Austria, Russia, and other states. Although initially successful, the Second Coalition’s fortune changed when Napoleon returned from Egypt and became the First Consul following the Coup of 18 Brumaire in November 1799. After Austria’s military defeats led them to sign the Treaty of Luneville in 1801, the exhausted United Kingdom signed the Treaty of Amiens (1802), providing several years of relative peace between France, Britain, and other continental states.[5]

Unfortunately, these treaties did not change the nature of Napoleon’s expansionist ambitions on the European continent and his desire to restore France’s colonial empire, which challenged Britain’s desire to control the seas. Unable to counter Napoleon’s efforts with peaceful measures or force him to make concessions, England declared war in 1803.[6] At war with France until Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Britain gathered continental allies to form a series of coalitions to fight Napoleonic France. While Napoleon defeated or dismantled these coalitions from 1805-1809, his fateful decision to invade Russia in 1812 led to the formation of the 6th Coalition that defeated France in 1814.[7] 

The U.S. can learn two key diplomatic lessons from Britain's experiences balancing against France. First, U.S. peace treaties with China will not succeed in preventing Chinese expansion. The Treaty of Amiens collapsed because it failed to comprehensively address many of the key issues tied to the global competition between Britain and France, leaving continued territorial disputes and conflicting economic interests that underpinned their conflict.[8] Similarly, China seeks to undermine the economic status quo through trade agreements and initiatives like 'One Belt, One Road.'[9] Furthermore, China has continuous territorial disputes and claims with U.S. allies, like Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, that could serve as potential catalysts for conflict.[10] The U.S. can learn from the failure of the Treaty of Amiens by not entering treaty negotiations if China does not reverse its revisionist actions. Second, the U.S. should build strong alliances to balance against Chinese expansion. Although it took five attempts to solidify a strong enough alliance to defeat France, the sustained pressure of alliances and coordinated use of IOPs ultimately succeeded. Thus, the U.S. must be farsighted in forging a strong coalition of alliances to curtail China's ambitions.

Britain’s use of the military IOP to perform offshore balancing provides a clear military strategy for the U.S. to emulate. In offshore balancing, a state balances against the rise of a regional hegemon by first enabling regional allies to defend against aggression, and the state only deploys forces when needed to shift the military balance of power towards its allies.[11] By providing military and/or economic aid to various resistance forces, the United Kingdom was able to degrade France’s ability to translate military success into long-term political peace. Therefore, while Napoleon’s brilliant military successes compelled most European states to submit to French dominance or occupation, he could not achieve lasting peace through military means.[12] During the French occupation of Spain, known as the Peninsular War, the British provided critical material, manpower, and naval support, allowing the Spanish to resist French occupation during the Peninsula War.[13] As China must also not be allowed to sustain gains made by military expansionism, the U.S. must adopt a similar military strategy of offshore balancing that proved successful for the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Therefore, the U.S.’s current Indo-Pacific Strategy of prioritizing building alliances and military partner capacity to secure the Pacific region has historical roots.[14]

Britain could use a military strategy of offshore balancing because it dominated the domain of support to coalition members, the sea. Not only did the strong Royal Navy protect Britain’s national sovereignty, it also enabled it to project power afar in support of its allies and provided security to conduct global trade. Thanks to the English Channel and its numerically superior fleets, Britain was the only adversary of France to avoid invasion.[15] Additionally, Britain’s predominance on the seas could supply the coalitions opposing Napoleonic France with war materials and even troops. Furthermore, the Royal Navy often disrupted France’s attempts to move commercial goods or military forces by sea. Eventually, Britain captured France’s isolated colonies.[16]

To emulate 18th-century Britain, the U.S. must prioritize capabilities that assure dominance over today’s domains of support, being Air, Sea, Space, and Cyber. If the U.S. dominates these four domains, it can conduct offshore balancing to counter an aggressive China. Like Britain, the U.S. is spared from credible land threats and can reduce the size of the military land component. Instead, the U.S. can prioritize equipping and training coalition forces to conduct operations on land. However, to be successful in offshore balancing, the U.S. will need to invest more resources into these four enabling domains. This is not to say that divestment means land forces are unnecessary; they are just not as important as domains of support. Therefore, the U.S. must divest some of its Land domain capabilities to support better the offshore balancing strategy espoused in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Britain and France's use of economic warfare also demonstrate the limits and potential dangers of relying upon restrictive economic policies. Unable to invade Britain following the decimation of his navy in 1805-6, Napoleon instituted the Continental System to strangle the British economy.[17] Although the Continental System did degrade the British economy, it evaded any crippling effects thanks to its dominance of the sea and widespread circumvention by Napoleon’s allies.[18] Furthermore, Napoleon’s economic policy disastrously affected continental economies and alienated neutral countries from France. [19] Napoleon also squandered vast resources attempting to enforce the Continental System, which played a major role in his decision to invade the Iberian Peninsula and later Russia.[20] Similarly, British restrictive trade policies enacted in response equally hurt primarily neutral and allied nations.[21]

The U.S. should, therefore, avoid restrictive trade policies that increase tension among allies and neutrals. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not currently engaging in open, free, and fair trade as current U.S. attempts to improve national industrial security impose disproportionately negative costs and pain on allies.[22] Thus, while the Indo-Pacific Strategy heavily promotes alliances and partnerships, American economic policies undermine this strategy as neutrals and allies will seek ways to circumvent restrictive U.S. trade policies to ensure their own economic interest. Collective defense requires alliance-informed economic policies, not unilaterally enforced and selfish economic policies.

Lessons from the Napoleonic Wars should guide U.S. strategy to increase national or collective defense. First, the U.S. should not give China the easy pathway through diplomatic treaties to cement its expansionist agenda. Second, the U.S. should grow alliances and partnerships and include a military component to partnerships. Third, military partnerships enable the strategy of offshore balancing to cover a greater geographic area, thereby containing China. Fourth, to cover a vast geographic area, the U.S. needs to reduce investment in the Land domain and increase investment in the Air, Sea, Space, and Cyber domains of support. Fifth, the U.S. needs to enact alliance and partner-informed economic policies, as such policies only strengthen the strategy of offshore balancing and diplomatic partnerships. Combining these lessons from the Napoleonic Wars into a more synchronized approach by the US in its Pacific strategy would greatly improve its success.


Major John Pendergrass
Major Pendergrass is a career Intelligence Officer currently serving as an Air University Fellow at Squadron Officer School. He holds a master’s degree in Military Operational Art and Science from Air Command and Staff College and an MBA from Quantic School of Business. His interest in the Napoleonic Wars and the greater linkage to great power competition was sparked by Dr. Kenneth Johnson and Dr. Jordan Hayworth. His research interest is focused on the concept of “domains of support” as key enablers to a successful offshore balancing strategy. His greatest passion is his family.

This paper was written as part of the Napoleonic Warfare elective at ACSC.


[1.] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Doctrine Note 1-18: Strategy (2018) Chapter II, “Strategic Ends and Means,” 5-8.

[2.] ACSC Napoleonic Warfare Seminar, 24 Aug 2022.

[3.] Stephen Walt, “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” International Security 9, no. 4 (Spring 1985): 9.

[4.] William Nester, Titan: The Art of British Power in the Age of Revolution and Napoleon (Norman, Univ of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 84-85; Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2020), 126.

[5.] Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars, 122-123, 126.

[6.] Ibid., 148-56.

[7.] Nester, Titan, 320-323.

[8.] Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars, 148-154

[9.] Barry Naughton, “China’s Global Economic Interactions,” in China & the World, ed. David Shambaugh (Oxford Univ Press, 2020), 124-128.

[10.] Stephen Burgess, “Confronting China’s Maritime Expansion in the South China Sea: A Collective Action Problem,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, (Fall 2020): 121-122.

[11.] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior US Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 4 (July/August 2016): 73-74.

[12.] Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars, 175, 184-186.

[13.] Nester, Titan, 256-275.

[14.]Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States,” (U.S. Government, Feb 2022), 9-10.

[15.] Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars, 187.

[16.] Kenneth Johnson, “Napoleon’s War at Sea,” in Napoleon and the Operational Art of War: Essays in Honor of Donald D. Horward (Koninklijke Brill NV, 2016), 460-463.

[17.] Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars, 232-233.

[18.] ACSC Napoleonic Warfare Seminar, 23 Nov 2022.

[19.] Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars, 237-239.

[20.] Ibid., 239-241.

[21.] Ibid., 240.

[22.] Alan Rappeport, Ana Swanson, and Zolan Kanno-youngs, “Biden's 'Made in America' Policies Anger Key Allies,” The New York Times (The New York Times, October 14, 2022),

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